From American Idol to Mormon Missionary

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I know of a couple of UTS alumni who have, since graduation, returned to, continued, or embraced the Mormon faith. I remember hearing that family and community culture was a strong attraction and motivation for them. The Cornerstone welcomes further feedback from all alumni on their spiritual journeys and choices in their lives of faith.

This article was published in  in the Wall Street Journal Dec. 30th, 2011.

In recognition of  the spectrum of faiths of UTS alumni, I am re-publishing the  article here. I think it holds some lessons for all of us: mission, service and spiritual growth, whatever the faith one holds.( RJG)

Allison Pond, the writer, is an associate editor for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

At a concert in Salt Lake City last week, pop star David Archuleta of American Idol fame made an unexpected and emotional announcement. After a couple of years of skirting questions about it, he revealed that he will indeed serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though he hasn’t made public where he will be sent.

Mr. Archuleta will join more than 52,000 Mormon missionaries serving in 340 missions, or geographic areas, world-wide. Eighty percent of them are young men who begin serving at age 19. The remainder are mostly young women age 21 and older, along with a small number of retired couples. It is estimated that roughly a third of eligible young Mormon men elect to serve missions.

For Mr. Archuleta, age 21, life is about to change considerably. He’ll trade a life of stardom for the rigor of waking up at 6:30 every morning, studying scripture for a couple of hours, then working 10-hour days teaching interested people in their homes and taking on other community-service projects before falling into bed exhausted. He’ll also join the ranks of other prominent Mormons who have served missions, including Mitt Romney (France) and Jon Huntsman (Taiwan), Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings (Spain), and actors Aaron Eckhart (Switzerland) and Jon Heder (Japan).

Missionaries serve on their own dime, swearing off dating, entertainment and even most Internet activity. There is relatively little direct supervision; they have at once rigid structure and significant autonomy. They work in pairs, reporting weekly in writing to a mission president, an older man called to serve a three-year stint.

Mission life wasn’t always so structured. For the first years after the church’s founding in 1830, missionaries were usually established men who left families behind as they set off on their own to spread their newfound faith.

Early missionaries branched into Canada, then Britain and Scandinavia, converting tens of thousands who immigrated to Utah in the latter half of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the church began to restrict its calls to unmarried men and sometimes women.

By 1950, some 3,015 missionaries were called to 46 missions world-wide and the church began systematizing missionary work, emphasizing the duty of all young Mormon men to serve and establishing policies such as a formal business-attire dress code. In 1953, the church issued the first official set of lessons for use in all missions. Over the years, new materials were issued regularly, culminating in 2004 with “Preach My Gospel,” a handbook that moves away from set lessons and gives missionaries latitude to personalize instruction, urging them to “follow the spirit.”

This aggressive missionary effort bears fruit. In 2010, the church reported 272,814 converts world-wide, or roughly five per missionary. Of course, the number of converts varies widely by mission. A missionary in South America can expect to baptize regularly, while those in some European countries are lucky to count even one convert by the time they come home.

The most important converts to Mormonism might be the missionaries themselves. Studies indicate that returned missionaries maintain strong levels of religious activity, with more than 80% attending services each week and paying tithes to the church. Returned missionaries also tend to have high educational levels and marriage rates.

It’s no surprise that the missionary experience leaves a lasting imprint on young people. While friends back home are heading to a house party, a typical missionary may be swallowing a lump in his throat as he stands on an unfamiliar doorstep, terrified yet hopeful. Or he may be on his knees on a dirt floor listening to someone pray for the first time, or pulling himself out of bed to pore over French grammar.

With Americans today fretting about prolonged adolescence, particularly among young men, the Mormon mission experience is a radical anomaly. It forces inexperienced young men and women, some barely out of high school, to grow up extraordinarily quickly. They minister primarily among the middle and lower classes, where they may find themselves giving marital advice, talking someone through the stages of grief or even leading a congregation. They wrestle with their own doubts and questions, make mistakes and experience the satisfaction of watching lives change.

Because of his time in the spotlight, David Archuleta may already be more grown up than the average 21-year-old, but a mission will challenge even him. It will put him in the company of hundreds of thousands who, by the end of their missions, have firsthand experience with the biblical injunction to lose their lives and thereby find them.

Ms. Pond served as a Mormon missionary in Rostov-na-donu, Russia.

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